By now you'd expect Francesca Danieli to be used to the often vicious nature of politics. After all, she was raised near the nation's capital, her father served President Lyndon Johnson, and her husband worked in the Clinton administration.
"I've almost been forced to be involved in politics all my life," she says.
Danieli, though, found herself shocked recently at how vitriolic people she met became when politics were mentioned.
"I went to a wedding this summer for a third-generation Republican family, and every time politics came up, it was tense," Danieli says. "It's very sad.
"Where does the hate reside? Is it coming from the leaders? Is it coming from the media? Is it all the way down through the rank and file? Is it more on the Republican side or the Democratic side?"
Her questions, though rhetorical, took on more significance last week as backers of President Bush vilified Sen. John Kerry's Vietnam war record, and Democrats maligned the president for conducting a campaign of fear and smear.
As Republicans flock to New York this week to renominate George W. Bush, Danieli and two other Maryland artists hope to diminish the rancor by asking GOP delegates to say something nice thing about the Democrats for a video project they are producing. The title of the video, fittingly, is One Nice Thing.
Their effort is decidedly nonpartisan. They began the project last month in Boston, filming the responses of 200 delegates and officials at the Democratic National Convention who were asked to say something nice about Republicans.
Danieli is joined by Julia Kim Smith and David Beaudouin. While they don't consider themselves political activists, they share a revulsion to the acrimony that grips American politics.
"I'm not very political. I consider myself an artistic soul," says Smith, an artist, designer and teacher who lives in Baltimore County. "But I've been disturbed by the level of hostility. That's really bothered me. You get so you want to look at somebody's car and study their bumper stickers before talking to a stranger. People have become so hostile out there. It's just very chilling."
The French refer to this scathing hostility by both parties as a "dance of fools," says Beaudouin. "You're arguing about arguing and you're forgetting about what the issue was. ... It isn't about who's going to take out the trash, it's who's going to win the argument."
While the three had access to the convention floor in Boston, the Republicans have thus far barred them from their convention, which begins tomorrow in Madison Square Garden.
"I don't know if they'll even let us in the building," says Danieli, who resides in Baltimore County and shares the filming chores with Smith. If necessary, they will camp out at the delegates' hotels and at locations of GOP parties to find Republicans willing to participate in the project.
In Boston, the filmmakers say, they were met at first with skepticism, but that didn't linger. "The first day people were afraid of us," Danieli recalls. "The second day, they were happy to talk with us. The third day, we were on CNN and CNBC."
The footage for One Nice Thing from Boston will be shown daily this week at White Box, a nonprofit arts organization in New York City. The project is being financed by the three.
Later, the filmmakers will combine footage from both conventions, and hope to exhibit it either before to the November election or during the inauguration in January.
In a year when films like Fahrenheit 9 / 11 have fueled partisan bitterness, the three artists view their project not as a typical film or documentary, but as a video "confessional."
"Our common response was it's kind of like shooting fish in a barrel to come up with something negative," says Beaudouin. "So we tried to step back and look at the bigger picture and say, 'Isn't there a common ground that can break this rancorous, polarized environment, and do this in an unexpected and even disarming way that makes people take a step back themselves?' "
They're not naive about changing votes or the world, but they hope that in some measure the project will persuade people to reduce the viciousness of their attacks.
"It's a very small gesture, a small thing," says Danieli, whose work includes still and digital images. "But maybe if everybody did small things, the situation would change. We're not expecting to end the political rancor, but we just wanted to do something."
"With the state of world affairs, this is probably one of the pivotal times in history that we can really ill afford to be as divided as we currently are," says Beaudouin, a Baltimore poet, writer and producer. "If there was ever a time for us to pull together, this is it. Yet, I don't think we've ever been as divided.
"Saying one nice thing is an act of faith. The idea to make that gesture, to say one nice thing, is stepping outside of whatever frame that you happen to be in at the time and taking that extra step to look at the larger picture, to find that common ground. To find that point of connection and step away from what separates us."